It has sometimes seemed that in the church's concern for religious liberty its objectives have not always been compatible with its equally valid concern for good public relations. Viewed from the narrow partisan standpoint, such differences are inevitable. However, there are others who feel that more perspicacity with reference to the total witness of the church and its associated goals could substantially reduce the instances of apparent incompatibility. Good communications toward the church's many diverse publics must not be hampered by, nor must it hamper, the church's concern for the preservation of religious freedom in the context of national and communal affairs.
If it does seem that on occasion the church appears to be afflicted with schizophrenia as it attempts to coordinate its public relations and religious liberty activities, perhaps a closer look at the roles to be played by these two activities will help to restore equilibrium.
There is, of course, the factual, informative function of the organization's public relations operations. Here the primary goal is to place the facts before the publics concerned. Prejudice, hostility, and misinformation are largely founded on an inadequate appreciation of the facts. Furnishing statistical data along with the basic details of belief and activities will not, of itself, suffice to overcome bias and hostility, but it will help.
The second important function of any public relations effort must be to provide an interpretive background against which the factual information supplied can be evaluated and appreciated. This calls for an understanding of the long-term goals of the church and a keen awareness of the current trends that go to make up the collective public mind. The third crucial area of public relations work is possibly the most difficult to delineate. This might be termed, for want of a better term, the creative function. Here one finds the need to move from the passive acceptance of circumstances to the place where public opinion, attitudes, and reactions must be influenced, shaped, and molded. A positive approach toward fashioning the picture a nation, a community, or an individual will form of the church is a vital aspect of any worth-while public relations program. "Image projection" must be in focus, and above all, it must maintain absolute fidelity to the truth of the subject being projected, in this case the church. But it also permits of legitimate efforts toward assisting the church to show its best face.
Ellen G. White summed it up succinctly when she admonished the church with these words: "We should remember that the world will judge us by what we appear to be."—Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 397.
Seventh-day Adventists have a solemn responsibility to see that the church's voice and face resemble as closely as possible those of its Lord, and that its communications efforts will project this image as accurately and attractively as possible.
In the area of national and community affairs the church's concern with the preservation and enlargement of liberty must at times be modified or limited by the superior considerations of its basic mission and long-term goals.
It must not be forgotten that the most assiduous defense of religious freedom, replete with numerous favorable court decisions and majority opinions, contributes little to the central message of the church if in the process its receptive audience has been driven away. The success of the church's efforts to give its message will be found to be in direct ratio to its success in winning and deserving a friendly and objective hearing. All the freedom in the world is as nothing if people have exercised their freedom to choose and have elected to turn away from hearing the prophetic voice, albeit a free but terribly lonely voice!
In the area of public affairs there are two possible denominational philosophies. One could be described as "reactionary" in the sense that the church reacts to situations as, to borrow a legal term, an "accessory after the fact." Any action is invariably a reaction to some crisis or problem. The alternative philosophy could be described as "progressive." Here the church strives to be somewhat prepared for developments in the molding of which it has had a share. Once again, borrowing a related legal phrase, this could be characterized as being an "accessory before the fact."
If it is felt that the principal concern of the denomination's Religious Liberty Department must be to put out fires, not prevent them, then indeed such a program belongs in the "reactionary" category. Consistent with this idea one can invariably find a negative, suspicious, and belligerent attitude toward the defense of freedom. Other groups are viewed with questioning alarm. The motives of non-Adventists are ipso facto suspect.
It is in this environment that it becomes very easy for the church to project the image of a "litigation-happy" organization bent on supporting a growing army of "budding Blackstones."
If no other considerations are allowed to enter into the thinking and planning of this aspect of denominational activity, then such reactionary consequences are inevitable. Wise church administrators will try to avoid this. Men assigned to religious liberty work should be encouraged to develop and exercise that broader perspective comprehending the church's total witness.
The progressive approach suggests a positive, constructive attitude to be adopted by the church in its efforts to contribute toward the defense and enlargement of human freedom. "Prevention" is one of the key words used in describing the objectives of this philosophy. Trying to anticipate the shape of things to come by current shadows and shapes allows a more relaxed, unobtrusive, yet effective program. Instead of breathlessly trying to catch up with a problem, useful steps can be carefully planned by our leadership—steps that could be evaluated and taken with somewhat more time to prevent a crisis that might assume Gargantuan dimensions.
Judgment and ordinary common sense command a premium in this strategic concept. For there are times when in the interest of certain clearly defined and understood goals some transient gain may have to be overlooked. It often pays to pass up the opportunity to smite the enemy "hip and thigh" in order that his conversion, alive and healthy, might be effected, and reinforcements thus be added to the legions of faith! But it must be admitted that this takes extraordinary courage, which is not found behind every administrative desk. An internationally known statesman, politician, and lawyer once observed after his advice and counsel had been sought with reference to the stand our denomination should take toward the Sunday laws and efforts to discredit them: "You must try as far as possible to stay out of the gutter and slime of litigation. Society finds it hard to accept the picture of a Christian organization perpetually embroiled in the courts. You must take your stand on the lofty platform of truth and principle from which you can point to a better way without stooping to muddy your hands in the drain. Let others fight most of these battles for you. Your very intervention would grant these dubious foes a recognition they scarcely deserve."
There will, of course, arise instances where the church has no recourse but to fling down the gauntlet and fight for the principle at issue. But the provocative justification for the resort to combat must be beyond question, so that even detractors of the church will concede that there was no other honorable alternative. However, if the church has done its duty faithfully, has exhausted every avenue of prevention and conciliation, these occasions will prove to be the exception rather than the rule.
In public relations it is important that the church be able to speak and act consistently and articulately. But it is even more important that in the area of public affairs the church develop to a high degree of proficiency the art of looking and listening. It is not enough to be able to lift up the trumpet and give it a certain sound; it is imperative that the ability to lay it aside and listen carefully must also be developed.
A sober appraisal of the facts suggests that the Seventh-day Adventist Church must leave the noisy, impudent status associated with the fox terrier, which can with impunity indulge in vociferous barking, knowing full well that it will not be called upon to engage the mastiff in mortal strife. One possible solution is to organize or support an agency, quite apart and separate from the denomination, which could be encouraged to engage in hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield of public controversy and acrimony. Organizations founded and directed by laymen serving as the "infantry" in the legions of liberty recruited by the church enjoy a latitude of action not available to the church. If fight we must on every single sector of the front of freedom, then let it be done by those Hessians skilled in the arts of war, whose nostrils distend at the very smell of litigious powder, and who are devoted to the cacophony of war.
Let the church through its ministry disclose a dedication to principle that will find the departments of the denomination more concerned with the total impact of the gospel than in court decisions. Obsessive preoccupation with the little skirmishes must be avoided. By the same token the dangerous enchantment of public adulation must be firmly repulsed. Such a balanced program of endeavor is not beyond the ability and capacity of Seventh-day Adventists. It needs but the desire to achieve it in order to effect its realization.
No better summation of this strategic concept could be cited than the inspired words of Ellen G. White, who said:
Let everyone bear in mind that we are in no case to invite persecution. We are not to use harsh and cutting words. Keep them out of every article written, drop them out of every address given. Let the word of God do the cutting, the rebuking; let finite men hide and abide in Jesus Christ. Let the spirit of Christ appear. Let all be guarded in their words, lest they place those not of our faith in deadly opposition against us and give Satan an opportunity to use the unadvised words to hedge up our way.—Ibid., vol. 9, p. 244.
Let the work be done in a way that will not arouse prejudice which would close doors now open for the entrance of the truth.—Ibid., p. 209.